Banner Year in Auburn Sports Despite Change in AD
The former Auburn AD deserves some credit for the successful year the Tigers enjoyed in 2017-18 (photo: USA TODAY)
It wasn’t so long ago that many Auburn fans were ready to see Jay Jacobs hit the old dusty trail. One of the few barbs Alabama fans could still throw at Auburn is the perceived “good ole boy” environment that supposedly surrounded Auburn sports. Some people even believed the decisions being made at the Athletic Director’s level weren’t being made by the director himself nor were they being made in the best interest of Auburn sports. At least, that was the perception. Sometimes I caught myself wondering if Jay Jacobs really wanted what was best for Auburn and Auburn’s fans.
But that seemed far-fetched, considering Jacobs’ pedigree as a former Auburn player. Yet, some of the hires and fires, the buyouts and the extensions didn’t make much sense. While Auburn did enjoy a Heisman trophy and a National Football Championship under Jacobs’ watch, it seemed at times that he didn’t give much attention to the other major sports. And it was likely the scandal involving the Myers’ coaching family and softball program ultimately cost him his job and hastened the hiring of Allen Greene. While the way things ended for Jacobs wasn’t optimal, Jacob’s fingerprints were all over the programs that Greene inherited, and Auburn’s success in several sports in 2018 should be attributed to Jacobs just as much as to Greene.
The hiring of Allen Greene truly shook up Auburn sports as has not been seen since before my time. He has been described as a “trailblazer” for Auburn sports. He comes to Auburn as one of the youngest directors in the country and is only the third African-American director in the SEC’s storied history. Greene has zero ties to Auburn. In fact, other than working for Ole Miss for a few years, Greene really has no ties to the SEC. While money hasn’t been an issue for Auburn athletics and Jacobs never had a problem coming up with cash to get things done, some fans felt like only the needs of the big money donors were considered where amenities were concerned. Greene’s background as an effective fundraiser may go far to change that perception.
The two men couldn’t be more different in almost every respect. Jacobs’ legacy isn’t quite written yet, but the hires he made and the direction that Auburn sports took this past year could ultimately shine a favorable light on what seemed like a negative ending just months ago. Meanwhile, Greene’s handling of the coaches and the department he inherited during his first months will likely chart the direction of his career. Greene has already shown that he isn’t above shaking things up as he fired six top-level administrators, including executive associate director Meredith Jenkins who mismanaged the softball scandal. However, in a throwback to Auburn’s past, Greene hired former teammate and coworker from Notre Dame, Brant Ust.
Regardless of their differences, Jacobs and Greene share the 2017-2018 sports year, which was fantastic despite not winning at the highest level. Let’s take a look back at what was a banner year for the big three in Auburn’s sports.
2017 was a pivotal season for Gus Malzahn and the football team. Outside of the 2013 season, Malzahn had no statement wins, a polar image in fans’ minds given his compensation package. Truly, Auburn fans could live with languishing programs elsewhere if Malzahn could live up to the top-ten coaching job for which he is being paid.
After beating Auburn’s two rivals, winning the 2013 SEC Title, and coming a play or two away from a national championship, Malzahn’s squads simply didn’t live up to any sort of championship expectations. The football program embarrassingly failed to achieve anything of substance. That included going 0–6 against Alabama and Georgia. It looked like Malzahn’s career would never recover from the 2015 season as the 2016 season limped along on life support. After Sean White’s second injury-riddled season, Auburn had no answers on offense during Amen Corner. The offensive genius looked anything but.
Following the 2016 football season, Auburn basketball turned in a lackluster season, despite fielding the most talented team Auburn had seen in 20 years. Just a year removed from a deep SEC tournament run with a rag-tag team, Auburn missed the Big Dance again. Although Bruce Pearl is regarded as one of the best coaches in America, it began to feel if Pearl couldn’t get it done, then the job couldn’t be done with anyone.
Baseball is a special sport for Auburn fans. There’s Bo and the Big Hurt. There’s Tim Hudson and MVP Josh Donaldson. And there’s been a lot of nothing else for a very long time for the sport. Pearl’s hire led to some hope when the Tigers took down Kentucky in 2016 and made a run in the SEC tourney, and the hiring of Sonny Golloway to head the baseball program seemed on the outside to be the same caliber hire.
Golloway’s stay in Auburn was short and plagued with controversy that narrowly avoided major litigation. The average fan read Golloway’s résumé, and it seemed like the perfect hire. However, underneath that shiny facade was a troubled coach who brought his problems to Auburn. After being fired for operating outside of NCAA guidelines, Golloway did his best to smear the department while the keys were handed off to Butch Thompson, a hire that was anything but exciting at the time .
So, in typical Auburn fashion, not much was expected for major Auburn sports entering the 2017–2018 year. Auburn began the year dropping critical games early in the football season using the method like what fans had come to expect from a Malzahn team: an offense that looked lost. Pearl’s team seemed like the best chance for Auburn to make a statement, but that expectation was derailed before the first tip as Chuck Person was arrested in the FBI probe into NCAA basketball. The federal sting operation also managed to ensnare Auburn’s two best players. Butch Thompson had a solid season his first year, despite not inheriting a loaded roster. However, he lost several key players, and it appeared another average season was on the brink in 2018.
But, Malzahn delivered a November to be remembered as he and the Auburn Tigers destroyed Georgia and Alabama inside Jordan-Hare. The 26–14 beating the Tigers delivered to Nick Saban is the worst margin of defeat he’s suffered. Even though the season couldn’t have ended worse for Auburn fans as with the Tigers were dominated twice in the last two games and its two hated rivals squared off for a national championship, Malzahn showed that he could out-coach anyone.
In basketball, Bruce Pearl’s squad may have been missing Daniel Purifoy and Austin Wiley, but that didn’t stop it from winning an SEC crown. Great basketball returned to the Plains for the first time in 15 years, and the fan base was dying for it. Again, the season didn’t end the way fans had hoped, but the injuries to Bryce Brown and Anfernee McLemore couldn’t be helped.
Perhaps the most exciting thing was Butch Thompson elevating Auburn baseball to a team that made the Super Regional and boasted the number-one overall draft pick in pitcher Casey Mize. Ultimately, the Tigers fell to Florida, the prohibitive favorite to win it all, but the 43–23 mark and the post-season play were something few expected in such a loaded conference.
Just as Malzahn did what he had to do in beating the two big rivals, Pearl did what he had to do in getting Auburn to the NCAA tournament. Still, nothing has been as surprising as the coaching job by Butch Thompson. None of these teams truly accomplished the overall goal of every team: winning a national championship. Yet, Auburn played at the top level in those major sports, something no other school can claim.
While 2017–2018 was a year of change at Auburn that saw an Auburn Man find the door and an outsider find a seat at the head of the sports program, both men share the accomplishment of putting Auburn on the big stage. And at this juncture, the future looks bright for all three big sports.